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EDITIONS
Monday, 17 February, 2003, 17:01 GMT
Fire union holds off on strikes
Soldiers fight a haystack fire in Gateshead on 1 February
Four weeks of Acas talks are set to resume on Monday
Firefighters' leaders have decided not to set any new strike dates, following the first talks between all sides in the pay dispute.

Fire Brigades Union (FBU) leader Andy Gilchrist said the decision came after a "constructive" intervention in the dispute by the government.

Mr Gilchrist welcomed deputy prime minister John Prescott's "useful and helpful intervention", which would enable "constructive and substantive" negotiations to begin.

He said: "The union and the public at large will welcome the return of common sense to this dispute."

There are major areas within Bain that are negotiable - and we have made that clear to the FBU

John Ransford, of the Local Government Association

Talks at the arbitration service Acas will now resume on Monday and continue for four weeks, according to the FBU.

Mr Prescott also stressed his "strong commitment" to a negotiated settlement.

He said "All parties would need to commit to an intensive process of talks, during which time all efforts should be directed to maintaining a constructive atmosphere for the negotiations.

"The employers should ensure no action should be taken at local level to breach that spirit, and during that period the FBU should set no further strike dates."

Mr Prescott emphasised pay and modernisation would still have to be linked.

But he added there should be a "fully consultative process" involving both sides.

Both sides could bring anything to the negotiating table, with nothing ruled in or out, Mr Prescott said.

Andy Gilchrist
We look forward to negotiations beginning as soon as possible

Andy Gilchrist

And the FBU said this answered its demand all pre-conditions had to be dropped before talks could resume.

John Ransford, of the Local Government Association, told BBC News he was "very pleased" by the FBU's decision.

But he denied any dropping of the condition that firefighters should accept recommendations from the Bain review prior to talks.

"The Bain report was an independent review of the fire service - and we cannot ignore that.

"But there are major areas within Bain that are negotiable - and we have made that clear to the FBU."

On Monday the FBU was considering strikes of varying length, starting from next month.

And executive member Michael Nicholas said it would continue to meet weekly to review its position on further walkouts.

Significant shift

Monday's unexpected talks came hours after a meeting, also described as constructive, between the firefighters' leader Andy Gilchrist, TUC officials and Mr Prescott.

Mr Gilchrist had warned that new strikes would be announced unless there was a significant shift in the government's position that a pay deal had to be accompanied by modernisation.

BBC Labour Affairs correspondent Stephen Cape said the talks had been intended to build up trust and calm things down.

Our members are determined to achieve fair pay in the fire service

Sean Cahill - FBU

The FBU claims the cost of the dispute has now reached 90m - enough for a 16% pay rise over two years and equivalent to the deal which it says was scuppered by the government before Christmas.

Mr Gilchrist said firefighters across Britain remained committed to winning a better deal.

The FBU's Sean Cahill told BBC News: "Our members are determined to achieve fair pay in the fire service and not at the cost of 4,500 jobs and fire stations closing."

The latest strike, a 48-hour walkout, ended on Monday morning after troops again provided emergency cover, although striking firefighters left picket lines on several occasions to help fight blazes.

Two people died during the industrial action, one in a caravan fire in Bristol and the other in a car accident in Somerset.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones
"Everyone has stepped back a bit from the brink"
The BBC's Stephen Cape
"Now substantial negotiations will begin"
John Ransford, local authorities representative
"We're exactly in the position we were in 10 days ago"

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